And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer. Then he looked down on his caretaker and said, “Looks like he could use a beer,” so God made a farmer brewer.
Or God could have just sent him to Valley Malt’s Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend, a two-day conference on all things making local beer, from malting to hop growing to filling out beer label approval paperwork. The sold-out conference, which took place in late January at Hampshire College, was organized and hosted by Valley Malt, a Hadley, Mass. malt house who use grain from farmers to make malt for New England (and beyond) brewers.
“I could sense that there was a whole group of people interested in learning about grain to glass or field to glass and making a truly local beer,”
said Andrea Stanley, who founded Valley Malt with her husband Christian, at the start of the conference Saturday morning.
Stanley’s senses were spot on as the 30 seats for the conference sold out in about a week, with a waiting list to boot. Attendees came from all over—New York City, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, and Ontario—and ranged from dedicated, curious homebrewers to a couple opening a brewery and malt house in Newark Valley, New York.
It was a conference about moving past the “why” of making local beer and using local ingredients to the “how” and getting into the nitty-gritty details of it: how to plant a hop yard, how to create relationships with farmers to grow grain, how to educate consumers that the beer is local, and how to consistently and successfully create beer made with local ingredients.
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Chris Jarvis is an immunologist by trade and an associate professor of cell biology, but also helps operate a 1/2 barrel brewery in Hampshire College and teaches classes there like Brewing Microbiology and Zymurgy (the branch of applied chemistry dealing with fermentation). As the first presenter of the conference, he’s here to explain brewing science, from mashing in to fermentation.
“Almost everything in brewing is about balancing efficiency with quality,” Jarvis said before expertly taking us through detailed slides of hop enzymes and chemical reactions.
Following Jarvis, New York State Hop Specialist Steve Miller, of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County, satisfied any curiosity you might have about what it takes to open and run a hop yard, right down to what kind of wood and wire you would need to build the hop yard to where you can learn to build your own hop harvester.
Miller talked about East Coast hops—how in the 1880s New York state grew 90 percent of the country’s hops before powdery and downy mildew devastated hop production in the early 1900s. Now as the hop growing regions have moved West to Oregon and Washington, Northeast hop growers are rebuilding, learning what hops thrive here, and trying to keep up with demand from Northeastern brewers who want to use local hops.
Starting and operating a hop yard is costly, labor-intensive work, Miller emphasized, which requires a great deal of patience, as it will take three years for a hop yard to produce a full crop. Future New England hop growers should also keep an eye on University of Vermont’s Extension School, who have compiled an extensive list of hop growing and maintenance resources, as well as the Northeast Hop Alliance.
For the maltster, it’s all about relationships because as Andrea Stanley put it, “Good malt comes from the fields.” Maltsters are the connection between brewers and farmers and much of Stanley’s job is creating and nurturing relationships with farmers, recruiting new ones to grow grain for Valley Malt, and communicating with them about the quality and consistency of the grain. Often, it takes persistence, bordering on stalking—one of the farmers Stanley works with nicknamed her “stalker babe,” Stanley revealed during her presentation on malting science.
“When you find a farmer that you know that produces a really good, quality product, you stalk them until they sell you that product,” Stanley said with a laugh.
Valley Malt, who are now in their fourth growing season, work primarily with barley, wheat, and rye. They were able to more easily find wheat and rye because some farmers were growing it for bakeries already, but had to find farmers willing to grow barley. Stanley then, had to become the go-to person for telling farmers where to get barley seed, what variety to grow (two-row barley, for the most part) and even teaching farmers what they need to know about growing it.
Bruno Vachon, who founded the malt house Malterie Frontenac in Thetford Mines, Quebec in 2006, faced similar challenges, although on a slightly different scale. Montreal is home to a plant of mega-maltster Canada Malting Co. and to many barley growers–Vachon estimated at least 10,000 metric tons of malting barley are grown in Quebec annually–so he had to figure out how to convince farmers to grow grain for him.
“We just had to tap into that because it was always sold to Canada Malt[ing] or shipped out West to be malted. … The big thing was how do you select your barley, why should I sell you my barley if you’re paying the same price as the other guys are? ‘Well, we’re local, I know you, you know me, I come visit, you can drink the beer that’s going to be made with the barley you grow.’”
Sam Adams came to him to make a malt for Infinium, the champagne-style beer they brewed in collaboration with Bavaria’s Weihenstephan Brewery, and that is how you get your foot in the door with brewers, Vachon emphasized—by selling malt to brewers for specialty or one-off beers.
“When you’re making a specialty [beer], you’re willing to use something you’ve never used before and try something different and you’ve never sold it before so you can set a price on it. Then you build on to that. … One brewery in Quebec started doing one specialty a year with our malt, the next year they did all their specialties, now after four years they do all of their beers with our malt.”
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There is an element of risk in using local ingredients because of concerns of consistency, taking chances on a new maltster or hop grower or, in the case of Matthew Steinberg, not knowing what exactly was in the funk growing on the rafters above the fermenters.
Steinberg, who now owns Blatant Brewery and makes beer for High Horse in Amherst, arrived at Offshore Ale Co. in 2003 on Martha’s Vineyard and was looking for local ingredients to use in his beer. So, he just looked up.
“I got to the brewery and it hadn’t been cleaned for the two years prior. There was a coating of funk on the rafter above fermenters, so I said, OK I’m actually going to take that and I’m going to ferment that and see what happens,” Steinberg said during his presentation.
“I started a bug farm in barrel. That bug farm created 40 different beers over four years while I was there. It was this birth of flavor that I could introduce into whatever.”
Steinberg continues to use local ingredients in his beer, most recently with his anniversary beer, BLATANTOne, a Double IPA made with 55 percent pale malt and 15 percent rye malt from Valley Malt. He also announced his vow to use a bag of Valley Malt in every batch of Blatant IPA he brews from now.
“It’s not a cost issue, it’s a flavor issue on some levels, but more it’s a moral obligation to help grow this local farming and local malting thing,” Steinberg said.
The other brewers who spoke during the Saturday conference—Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing, Jay Sullivan of Cambridge Brewing Company, Chris Sellers of The People’s Pint, and Carrie Blackmore of Good Nature Brewing, repeated this sentiment.
“I had this epiphany in the fields with Andrea two years ago,” said Lohring. “As a brewer, I had never step foot in a barley field before. All of my grain came from England—Fawcett, Crisp, great people, great malt, but I felt totally disconnected from the ingredient. … It became less about the marketing and more about doing something I should have done a long time ago, but never had the opportunity to do.”
Sellers poured his Star of the Valley Ale, a brown ale made with all ingredients that came from within 20 miles of the brewery, except for the yeast. It was quite tasty, but Sellers also spoke to some setbacks brewers might face when making local beer or trying out new ingredients.
“Someone came up to me and said, ‘I had the first beer you made with 100 percent local ingredients and it was terrible.’” Harsh criticism, but as Sellers says these kinds of beers might have “unique characteristics outside of any other beers–there not your standard set of flavors.’”
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What is a farmer brewer then? Many Massachusetts breweries are licensed under the farmer-brewery license, which allows them to self-distribute beer and sell it on site, but which does not specify that brewers must use ingredients grown on local farms in their beer. Does a farmer brewer have to live on a farm? Grow his own hops?
“I think a farmer brewer is about making beer with an ingredient that came from a local farm,” Stanley told me later, in a phone interview.
“I think one of the things that came through to me over the weekend was how connected people feel to there they live and where they’re from. I feel like that drives a lot of people. A lot of people want to start brewing where they live or they want to farm where they live.”
“They feel really connected to their local town or their local community. And even hearing Ben [Roesch of Wormtown Brewery] talk about his brewery in Worcester. You know, he grew up in Worcester and he wanted to prove that he could have a successful brewery there. But at the same time he wanted to be using local ingredients. So here he is in an urban area, and he probably uses more ingredients than any other brewery in Massachusetts.”
And then there’s the legal side of it. Many breweries hold a farmer brewer licensee, which is issued by the state, but a state’s definition of a farmer brewer license varies greatly–New York’s law states that anyone operating a brewery under a “farm brewery” license has to source at least 20 percent of their hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients from New York state until the end of 2018, with the percentage increasing up to 90 percent by 2024.
In Massachusetts, many brewers hold the farmer-brewery license because it allows brewers to self-distribute their beer, sell it on site, and it is relatively cheap—for brewers producing under 5,000 barrels a year a license costs $22 annually; between 5,000 and 20,000 barrels, $44. There are no limitations about how much of their ingredients need to be sourced from Massachusetts farms (despite a scare in August 2011), but these questions may arise again, especially as brewers push for the right to sell their beer at state farmers markets.
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The first day of the conference concluded with a local food and beer dinner in Hadley and the second day was just as packed: a tour of Valley Malt, an off-flavors in beer tasting, grain farming and malting talks, and a practical brewing presentation by Roesch of Wormtown Brewery.
Stanley says she plans on doing it again next year, perhaps on a bigger scale. No doubt, the interest in making and drinking truly local beer is there; now it’s about figuring out how to do it more and do it better.